A Council vote looms, and the USTA holds out on conditions for a tennis-center expansion

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Children play soccer in the park. (Dana Rubinstein)
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On Wednesday, the City Council will decide the fate of the United States Tennis Association's bid to expand its existing 46-acre footprint within Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

Shortly after the USTA's expansion plan became public, some park advocates and councilmembers raised objections about the alienation of parkland the expansion would necessitate. The association appeared willing to budge, to an extent.

One question now, with the vote looming and the outcome uncertain, is whether they're willing to go any farther.

"There’s no question that the next few days are critical for the U.S.T.A. if they want this project to go forward," said Holly Leicht, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, which criticized aspects of the tennis association's original expansion plan.

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Every summer, tennis luminaries and the fans who love them flock to the U.S.T.A.'s National Tennis Center to watch the U.S. Open. In 2011, Sports Illustrated described the sports and marketing extravaganza as the "biggest, richest sporting event in the U.S."

"Put simply, the Open reeks of money," wrote L. Jon Wertheim. "Walking through the parking lot, you can be forgiven for thinking you've stumbled on the world's largest Range Rover dealership. The suits in the suites are Wall Street and hedge fund royalty. ... Gross revenue for the two weeks will approach $250 million."

The U.S.T.A. argues that in order to retain its status as a world-class sports facility, it needs to build two new stadiums and two new parking garages, and in order to do so, it needs to add a smidgen more public parkland to its already 46-acre grounds.

The problem, as parks advocates and local (and therefore influential, in this instance) councilmember Julissa Ferreras see it, is that while the tennis association is flush with cash, it contributes very little to the park in which it resides.

"Though the association pays about $440,000 in annual rent and an additional 1 percent of gross revenues above $25 million, which last year amounted to $2.5 million, none of that money goes to the park, but rather to the city’s general fund," reported the Times in March.

To some extent, it even renders the poorly-funded, poorly-maintained, but nevertheless popular park less usable, since the tennis association and the Parks Department allow tennis fans to park hundreds of cars on park lawns during the tournament.

So Ferreras, working with groups like New Yorkers for Parks, has formulated the following demands, none of which the U.S.T.A. has so far agreed to meet.

She'd like the U.S.T.A. to commit to an ongoing funding stream for the park and thereby help underwrite a park alliance, a la the Central Park Conservancy or Prospect Park Alliance.

"We have asked them for a larger up-front financial commitment for three years to help the alliance get started and then to revert to a smaller ongoing annual maintenance amount based on the amount of acreage that they have within the park," said Leicht.

Ferreras and her supporters would also like the U.S.T.A. to formulate a parking plan that gets those cars off the lawn during the tournament.

Ferreras, who is still negotiating with the U.S.T.A., had no comment. Nor did the U.S.T.A. or the parks department.

Earlier this year, the U.S.T.A. did make one concession to parks advocates, of a sort.

After substantial pressure, the U.S.T.A. agreed to abide by city and state precedent and replace the land it says it needs for the expansion with new parkland, in this case is a bit of land now on the edge of the U.S.T.A.'s existing tennis center.

But since the U.S.T.A. was merely agreeing to abide by well-established precedent, and since the parkland it was transferring to the Parks Department houses tennis courts, and the U.S.T.A. will retain the use of those tennis courts during the Open, even that concession seemed, somehow, a little bit empty.

"It’s a distinction without a difference," said Will Sweeney, a spokesman for the Fairness Coalition of Queens, which has been trying to extract more concessions from the association. "It's a total bullshit thing in the realm of a lot of bullshit."